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Metra Buying Old Trains, Squandering Opportunity to Change Ancient Service

Imagine riding in a roomy, airy, well-lit Metra train. Then forget it because Metra is buying more of the same. By JHarrelson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Imagine riding in a roomy, airy, well-lit Metra train. Then forget it because Metra is buying more of the same.
Photo: JHarrelson/Wikipedia
Imagine riding in a roomy, airy, well-lit Metra train. Then forget it because Metra is buying more of the same. By JHarrelson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Metra wants to lock in its 66-year-old train car design for another 30 years. The agency, which hasn't yet adopted a strategic plan that it started writing four years ago, seems to adhere to a policy of "if it ain't broke don't fix it." The problem is that they don't realize that things are indeed broken.

Metra issued an RFP last week for a manufacturer to build new gallery cars. The document doesn't make any room for a more rider-friendly design. The RFP seems pointless, even, because it would be easier to ask potential manufacturers, "how much would it cost to build copies of what we already have?"

The gallery car is characterized by its two-level design, the second level being split with a center open space so ticket collectors can stand on the first level and collect tickets on the second. This allows ticket collectors to make one pass through the car to collect all tickets. However, due to short distances between some stations, ticket collectors often leave the cabin to step onto the platform and then return to collecting.

The gallery car's disadvantages are numerous, however. Passengers must climb five steps through a single door and then choose a half of the car, entering through a small door into a narrow corridor, where they don't know if there's seating or not. Stairways to ascend to the second level are tight and people can only move in one direction at a time. The second level has a partial floor – reducing seating – and a low ceiling. Wheelchair lifts are necessary because of the high-floors and are only installed on some cars.

Back in the 1950s, Metra's predecessors started using, in earnest, the rail car design Metra still uses. In two years, when Metra buys new cars and puts them into operation, they'll essentially be the same as cars built in the 1950s. Metra is committing to purchasing 10 cars with an option for 367 if they can obtain funding.

Some of today's gallery cars were built in the mid-1990s and they'll last for at least 30 years with proper maintenance and refurbishing. In fact, an Illinois Railway Museum magazine [PDF] in 1998 said that Car 700 was built in 1950 and still in service that year.

Metra's ticket collecting mode has been outdated for a while, and the successful and wide adoption of the new Ventra app makes it even more so. Riders made 1 million Metra trips using tickets purchased in the Ventra app in the two months following its November launch. Most Metra riders use a monthly pass that is verified with a spot inspection. Tickets purchased through the Ventra app – likely going to be the dominant way to buy tickets because of its convenience – are verified the same way, with a glance.

There are many alternative designs, all with two levels, more seating, and more space for wheelchairs, strollers, luggage, and bicycles.

Metra spokesperson Michael Gillis said agency staff looked at all two-level designs before issuing the RFP. He said that a single car design "realizes" many efficiencies: Metra workers only have to be trained on one kind of car specification; they would make fewer errors because there's only one car type; the agency wouldn't have to refit facilities to work on a new car type; and it only has to order parts for one car type.

Additionally, Gillis said, "there's a great deal of visibility within our gallery cars" and "we think that added visibility helps our conductors monitor activity and helps our customers feel comfortable and secure."

Metra's gallery car insistence is like sticking with Windows 95 instead of upgrading to Windows 10 because everyone in the office already knows how to use and troubleshoot it, but you won't get any of the new features and bug fixes of the new operating system.

Those efficiencies are hard to dispute, but the opportunity to make ingrained operations changes comes so rarely – about every three decades. There are also costs when an organization doesn't innovate. If Metra is to grow ridership, it needs space for more riders, and to diversify and change its service to attract the riders who don't simply commute every weekday.

For instance, have you ever tried to bring luggage on a Metra train and found it to be anything less than a chore lifting it up five steps, keeping the aggressive self-closing doors open, and then finding no place to store it? In the RFP document, Metra is asking for the same small, quirky luggage racks above the center aisle.

Metra should be looking beyond just a better car design to improve its service and reduce operations costs. They could use self-powered cars like the 'L' but still using diesel. They could electrify the lines that don't share the tracks with freight trains for cleaner and faster service. Many of the lines have long stretches with very little or no freight traffic (map).

One particular gallery car alternative is the BiLevel coach built by Bombardier of Canada – there are no American passenger car manufacturers anymore. It has zero steps, aligns with Metra's low-level platforms, has multiple entry doors, and two full-width, full-height floors. They are more comfortable to ride. Gallery cars seat up to 146 people while the BiLevel's open-floor design seats up to 162 riders.

Caltrain runs BiLevel and gallery cars on its San Francisco peninsula line showing its possible for a transit agency to run two kinds of cars. Gillis referred to the BiLevel car design and said that the gallery type has an advantage in letting workers access the A/C and other equipment. It's hardly the best in the world but it's quite common across the United States and in Toronto.

The agency's resistance isn't surprising given their general conservatism and tendency to stick with the status quo until they're things forced to change. They didn't start allowing bikes on trains until they were threatened with legislation to require it. It took a state law to get them to accept credit cards, but only at stations. They get credit, though, for being open and collaborative while the Ventra app was in development – their involvement was paramount to its success and the killer feature.

It seemed Metra was turning over a new leaf after two CEO scandals in 2010 and 2014. The board then selected Don Orseno, a former Metra executive, to lead the agency. He said in a press release after being hired, "I want our riders to know that nothing will be more important to me – and to Metra – than providing safe, dependable and comfortable trains and the best possible customer service."

Orseno needs to rethink what Metra's role is in providing transportation services for Chicagoland residents instead of re-committing to decades old patterns.

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